February 10, 2005 at 9:21 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

Let’s say you’re newly elected to a neighbourhood association board, and you learn that ~70% of residents in your neighbourhood are home-renters, not home-owners, and that your neighbourhood association membership consists of just a very few home-owners. (All those mansions the neighbourhood is famous for were converted to apartments long ago, and we all live cheek-to-jowl now, renting, mortgaged, owning, whatever! Yet keep in mind that the eagle-eye of the developers is on communities like this: we’re practically right downtown, and we have lots of curb-appeal…) Now, let’s add that you learn that membership in your neighbourhood association is only somewhere around 10%. To reach the residents (owners and renters), you have a newsletter, and you have leafletting. You have a website, too. Any ideas specifically for convincing renters to claim a stake, or even for getting their attention in the first place?

Are we fast enough yet?

February 9, 2005 at 1:48 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Are we fast enough yet?

Yesterday morning I participated in this intense school board review meeting, chaired by our intense (“talk softly but carry a zinger of a mind”) district superintendant. I found it interesting that “sustainability” was a key theme which recurred throughout the morning. At one point, the district super noted that technology doesn’t always help us into sustainable situations — remember, he’s talking to a technology-based distance education school, right? He observed (and I’m paraphrasing) that when it first became widely available, email was too often a portal for downright addictive behaviours, creating this sense that one was obliged to respond right away, and that communication had to be fast. Yet how sustainable is that, he asked, given that educators also need time to think, plan, mull things over? How sustainable is the larger project if one is constantly distracted by demands that technology delivers faster and faster?

Speaking of faster faster faster, I’m way behind in everything, it seems. Hey, I’m now a director on my neighbourhood association board — something else to distract me. Oh, and everyone in that group has email of course, which means my confusion is bound to multiply and mount even further…

There are a couple of things I’d like to get to this week: blog about William Leiss’s second seminar at PaCTaC (ctheory has put the Life in the Fast Lane chapter online — you’ll find a link to the video of both seminars there, too); and write a letter to the BC Minister of Education with cc to various other people in the immediate provincial educational system regarding the absence of teaching about the Shoah — it really is the case that it’s not taught until grade 12 History, which incidentally is an elective. Too many evenings get eaten up by meetings lately, which really cuts into the only time I have for blogging, though. My days are contually shot, that’s not new, alas.

Nature, Biomimicry, Economics, etc.

February 6, 2005 at 12:17 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Nature, Biomimicry, Economics, etc.

If you live in Victoria…

Betty Krawczyk will be speaking at the Central Library (main downtown branch) on Wednesday February 16th at 7 pm.

This month’s Focus magazine has another batch of great articles and interviews. For the time being, the interview with David Suzuki (conducted by Focus‘s editor, Leslie Campbell) is online here. It’s part of a series Campbell has put together, “The Quest for True Security” — worth reading. Following are some choice bits from Suzuki:

The problem is the politicians are not held in thrall by the electorate. They are really impacted by whoever pays campaign money. We’ve become much more like the U.S. with lobby groups. It really pisses me off to see these former politicians who set up their own lobby companies because they know all the ins and outs and they’re right in there working on behalf of the forestry or mining industry.

Canadians say nature is absolutely crucial to what we are as Canadians. That we have to do everything we can to protect nature, that we’re willing to have more taxes in order to protect nature. Overwhelmingly—85 to 90 percent. But when it comes to actual action we fall down dismally. In [our action plan and report] Sustainability Within a Generation we looked at the 29 OECD countries in terms of their policies towards clean water, forests and so on. We are 28th out of 29—pathetic!


Shareholders of companies are interested in the bottom line—that is, how much am I going to make on my investment? Now the problem is the forest grows at the rate of two to three percent a year. What investor is going to say “that’s fine—you just log two to three percent of the forest and I’ll be fine with that”?

Money grows faster than trees so there’s nothing in it for an investor if you stay within the sustainable level. So [the investors say in effect] “clearcut the forest; we’re not going to be around to harvest another crop 150 to 200 years from now; put the money in the bank and you’ll make five to six percent (or clearcut Papua New Guinea or Borneo and you’ll make 30 to 40 percent). And when the trees are gone, well, we don’t care, we’ll put the money into fish and when the fish are gone, something else.” So there’s nothing in it to encourage sustainability. And that’s the problem with the whole system we’ve bought into.


Underlying all of the issues is a mindset that sees the world a certain way. We think we’re at the top of the heap and have somehow escaped the normal bounds that limit other species. Every ecosystem has a carrying capacity. Only so many dandelions can live within this ecosystem sustainably. Too many and they’ll crash; too few and they may disappear. Every species has a carrying capacity but humans have always said “but we’re different, we’re unlike other species because we’ve got trade.”

Here in B.C. we’ve got a lot of trees and minerals and fish. So we trade them for bananas, coffee and other stuff from other areas—it’s believed that through trade we can rise above our ecosystem’s limits, its carrying capacity. That’s the great boast. So what happens? We’ve bloated ourselves and we’re living with more and more people and taking more resources.


[In response to Leslie Campbell’s comment that Suzuki has said that the GDP is “woefully inadequate” as a tool for measuring economic growth, Suzuki replies:]

Right. The GDP measures all the money that changes hands in a country—this includes money to clean up oil spills, treat illness caused by smog, clean up car accidents and more. So oil spills, smog and car accidents are good for the economy, but bad for us. [More…]

That last bit reminded me of Joseph Heath’s argument, in his book Efficient Society (which I’ve blogged about before, and also discussed in my comments board). What Suzuki describes (smog, oil spills, etc.) are “negative externalities,” counted as “positives” in GDP measurement (which is just insane!). Heath writes:

Whenever there are negative externalities, it means that markets will stubbornly overproduce the goods that create these externalities as by-products. Even worse, producers have a constant incentive to find new and better ways to externalize their costs. (…) What we call ‘environmental problems’ are for the most part market failures of this type. If firms do not have to pay for waste disposal, they will generate too much waste. This sort of pollution is clearly a bad thing. However, when a firm is polluting, it also suggests that too much of a certain good is being produced. The fact that the firm is polluting shows that its cost structure is out of synch with the social cost. Thus society takes a double hit from an efficiency standpoint — first through the pollution itself, and then through the overproduction of unwanted goods. [ Pgs.127-128, Efficient Society]

At another point in the Focus Magazine interview, Suzuki notes:

The problem is that companies do not see one of their main responsibilities as employing people. It used to be that companies were valued in a community because they were the major employer. I was amazed at the outpouring of affection when Eatons closed down. There was a sense that part of what it was about was employing people.

Now a company will lay off 500 people in a minute, not because they’re going belly up but to increase profitability. That’s become the bottom line.

We’ve seen that in B.C.’s forest industry. They have brought in as much mechanization as they can. So even when the cut was going up, the number of jobs in the industry was falling. The head of the IWA, Jack Munro, was blaming environmentalists for the lost jobs but it was mechanization that was responsible. The companies were bringing in feller bunchers and they automated the plants so they didn’t really need men. [More…]

That reminded me of a letter-to-the-editor by Betty Krawczyk, published just recently, but which I stupidly didn’t save. She made the point that BC’s loggers are experiencing the same fate that sharecroppers in her native Louisiana did when automated cotton-picking put them out of business. The letter made a point about the stench of slavery, and how, if present, it’s recognisable no matter where you go — Deep South or Great White North, eh?, don’t matter.

We’re deeply and to the point of unreason committed to an economic system based on a model that’s unsustainable. In the interview, Suzuki says,

“You and I could buy money today and two weeks later sell it and make money. We’ve added nothing to the well-being of anybody; we’re just buying and selling money. Money grows faster than real things and doesn’t stand for anything but itself.”

Models and economics….

The penultimate chapter of Janine Benyus’s excellent book Biomimicry is called “How Will We Conduct Business?” I want to quote from the chapter that immediately precedes that one, “How Will We Store What We Learn?”, which is all about computing and biomimicry. Benyus profiles, among others, Michael Conrad, head of the BioComputing Group at Wayne State University in Detroit. The closing section of her chapter gets back to Conrad (after discussing several other workers in this emerging field); the section is called “To Unflatten Biology: The Real Quest,” and here’s what Benyus writes:

When I ask Michael Conrad what desktop computers will look like in the era of molecular computing, he hedges. For him, the real carrot is not the device. “The last thing the world needs is another device,” he says. “As an aesthetic thing [i.e., simply how it looks?] I can understand technology, but except for some medical technologies, I don’t really see technology as a human need. Our perceived need for technology is mostly generated by the competition of countries for export. I think it’s economies, not people, that need devices in order to grow.” This man, the head of a major computer center, doesn’t drive a car, nor does he need to. He walks to work from the Victorian apartment he and his wife, Debby, have lived in for fifteen years. If he misses a phone call while he’s walking, he doesn’t know about it; he’s beeper-free.

Conrad’s agenda, and the prime directive in his vision for the future, astoundingly enough, is to offer people a new paradigm by which to understand biology — a biological rather than a mechanical paradigm. (…)

(…) We have a habit of making theories about organisms and basing them on the machine of the hour. We used to say that the human body worked like a clock, but that was when the clock was the ultimate machine. There was also a time when we said it worked just like levers and pulleys and hydraulics. Then we said it was like a steam engine, with a distribution of energies. After the Second World War, when we began to devise feedback controls for our factories, we said our body worked like a self-regulating governor or servomechanism. Now, predictably, we’re convinced that the body works like a computer. We’re using theories from computer science — theories that come from the machine world — to explain how the brain works, and that disturbs Conrad.


“This view of the organism as a digital computer has flattened biology, and I’d like to unflatten it. When I build the tactilizing processor, I hope it will make people stop and consider that there is more than one way to compute. Nature’s computers don’t work the way ours do. To think that they do is very bad for society — it makes us use digital computers for tasks we ought to be asking our brains to do — tasks to which digital computers are not suited.” [ Pgs. 235-6 from Biomimicry]

Benyus concludes her chapter this way:

Will we be able to replicate exactly what happens in our brains by using carbon-based devices [vs. silicon-based] like the tactilizing processor, the microtubule array, a cube of BR [bacteriorhodopsin], or a thimbleful of DNA? Michael Conrad laughs. “Remember, I have no illusions. I come from an origin of life lab and I know how fantastic life is. To emulate nature, our first challenge is to describe her in her terms. The day the metaphors start flowing the right way, I think the machine-based models will begin to lose their grip. Natural processes and designs will finally be the standard to which we aspire. On that day, I’ll feel like I’ve done my job. [P.237]

And that’s also bound to change the economic model, because at present, we’ve got an economics based on a mechanical vision that works like a dream for some and is a nightmare for the rest.

Sorry about the l-o-n-g entry — I guess that means this isn’t a blog, eh?, but who cares. Call it a bricolog, from bricolage (putting disparate pieces together in weird ways). Suzuki, Heath, Benyus — what next?

How about a walk in the rain, smelling the air, feeling the ground beneath her feet? How about a bit of nature, and maybe a sense of her?

Fly Like an Eagle (with apologies to the Steve Miller Band)

February 4, 2005 at 11:42 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

When my husband travels on business — as he did this week — there is one upside: we get to discuss whatever we want at the dinner table. When he is at home, he squashes certain topics, or at least tries to. For example, we can’t mention blood. Or diseases, especially the infectious variety. Hospitals may not be mentioned, either, since they are typically associated with blood. We can’t talk about human rituals that are bizarre, cruel, or unusual, or that involve blood. Most medical conditions, excepting of course benign insanity and other forms of mental eccentricity, are definitely not appropriate subjects. It would therefore be unthinkable to ponder the evil turn of mind that would lead anyone to kill more than a dozen bald eagles, simply to cut off their talons in order to sell these on the black market to unscrupulous traders who ply their wares to ignorant superstitious idiots. That’s the kind of subject that’s too much, even for me.

I’m glad he’s back, as he is, too. (He was in Colorado — said his bus to the meeting in Winter Park took him past Buffalo Bill’s grave, and from the rest of his report, that was the last he saw of civilisation. His ears popped from the altitude, it was rustic and cold, the snow was snowy, and outside of the meetings, there wasn’t much to do, since he doesn’t ski.)

The kids and I considered, during our bloodcurdling dinner conversations (just exactly what is it that sickle cell anemia does?), that Douglas Adams’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a really eloquent illustration of the universe’s infinity. If, for example, you could infinitely divide a distance in half — say, a centimetre from A to B: divide it in half, divide that in half again, divide again, and so on to the point of infinity, to the point where you hit a continuum similar to what the photon does when scientists try to measure & track it, and everything is folding back upon itself and you never reach the end in time or space — well, if you can infinitely divide a distance in half, then that means that in a time-space dimension, you can infinitely divide time in half (same way as distance), right? This means that the Restaurant at the End of the Universe really is at the “end of time” as well as at the “end of space.” (As it happens, when we first bought the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy dvd set four or so years ago and our kids started watching it, the son initially thought that the restaurant was at the border or margin of the universe — i.e., at “the end” in space. But that’s a legitimate transposition, if time and space are the same: you will forever and for all eternity go to the end, even as your dining experience will never deliver to you that experience of finitude, in the sense of coming through “on the other side.” Well, who wants a good meal to end, anyway? For some of us, the end just means having to clean up the kitchen.

Note that Arthur, Ford, and the others never do eat the cow, and that therefore no blood was shed. [PS: I thought they didn’t eat the cow, but I’m told they do.]

Yet time does run out. As the Guardian reports, in a feat of O-levels chemistry, scientists finally discovered that the carbon dioxide we’ve been pumping into the air has been falling back down to earth, and it furthermore hasn’t taken the eloquent bother of folding the distance in half, again and again and again into infinity. No, it’s fallen straight down, with no sense of poetic appreciation for “What Would Photons Do?” or theories or anything else. It has in fact been falling into the oceans at an alarming rate, where it turns into carbonic acid which busily raises the oceans’ acidity levels. Turns out that the increased acidity is killing off the tiny little sea creatures (including, but not restricted to, the coral reef critters) who for millions of years have seen fit to use carbon in building their shells. Their shell-building activity in turn has had the added benefit of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans, thus keeping our air healthy. The rapid increase in acidity, however, is killing these creatures, and with their demise goes their beneficial cleaning activity.

Well, kids, those eagles killed for their talons, flying to the sea: I wonder if they thought there was a solution…

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’
Into the future
Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’
Into the future

I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle
Till I’m free
Oh, lord, through the revolution

Feed the babies
Who don’t have enough to eat
Shoe the children
With no shoes on their feet
House the people
Livin’ in the street
Oh, oh, there’s a solution

I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle
Till I’m free
Fly through the revolution

~~~ Steve Miller, Fly Like an Eagle (for the rest of the lyrics, see here)~~~~~


February 3, 2005 at 12:04 am | In yulelogStories | 5 Comments

I’m so fagged out I considered just blogging a picture of my dog, captioned My yoga instructor, which I posted to Flickr yesterday. Would it be unseemly and too revealing for me to say that I think I must still be suffering from the anemia my doctor diagnosed …when?, several months ago? I’ve taken my iron supplements, but while I tried to keep up with the “tiger’s milk” concoction (a past winner in keeping mineral levels, including iron, at optimum), I lapsed after only a short while because I didn’t want to drink the stuff anymore. Now I wonder whether I’ve stinted on the supplements, popping just one pill a day instead of the three suggested by the label. I’m tired, tired to the point of feeling like my head is nailed to the floor and that I’m making gigantic, if useless, efforts to pull up the floorboards with my forehead. One tries not to get depressed, but one finds it difficult at times to maintain one’s equilibrium. If this keeps up, I’ll have to fire my yoga-dog. Hot dog.

The daffodils are late this year. Crocuses are all up, ditto other smaller bulbs. My neighbour across the street has a camellia in his front yard, facing west, which gets a lot of sun; it too has begun blooming. Some ornamental-type trees are blooming — blooms still closed, but coming along. Lots of different rhododendrons are blooming, too. This is the sort of thing we Victorianites love to lord over the rest of Canada, which is more often than not chest-deep in snow right around now.

Despite all this organic bounty, a vacation is in order. The world feels like it’s getting smaller, and furthermore, the virtual world is getting shrunken down to size, shrink-wrapped in the same whizz-bang formats, to the point where everything on the computer screen suddenly starts to look the same. The world outside my front door has a texture and mouth-feel (to steal a word from the food industry) that can’t be approximated in pixels.

Technology has an unfortunate tendency to make everything the same — and I say this with all due respect. Perhaps it’s inevitable. New technologies come along, people get excited and think, “yippee, this’ll change things,” and it does. For a while. But eventually, the technology gets used in predictable ways, namely to create more of the same. Most people use things in very average, ordinary ways to create what’s familiar and comfortable. Joseph Beuys might have thought that everyone, given the tools and opportunity, is an artist, but most people at heart want what they have, preferably just more of it. Perhaps that’s why we end up using technology to create homogenised products that don’t jab anyone the wrong way, products that create the look and the reality of more of the same. The divide between art and technology will not be bridged by a virtual revolution that creates products we already have and that facilitates eliding the corporeal nature of experience. Artists are supposed to bring the body back. Aesthetics — think about it — is the opposite of anaesthetics. The latter is what you get when you need to be knocked out, when you don’t want to feel pain with your aesthetically capable body. If you look at it long enough, the web is anaesthetic.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

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